Rotana Tarabzouni has been singing for as long as she can remember. As a child, after finishing her homework she would grab a hairbrush, pose in front of her bedroom mirror and sing for hours. Blasting her favorite records, she strained her vocal cords to get her voice as high as Christina Aguilera’s or to compete with Celine Dion’s—two among the select English-speaking artists available at the sole record store Tarabzouni had access to in Saudi Arabia.

Born in Dhahran, a city in eastern Saudi Arabia, twenty-five-year-old Tarabzouni grew up in a culture that restricted her apparel and her voice. She long felt suffocated by the strict religious guidelines she was raised to abide by and the country she called home. She had always abhorred the body-swallowing abaya and head-covering hijab, which she only wore when fearful of the eyes of the religious police. Tarabzouni wanted to study abroad, but it wasn’t the gender segregation in restaurants, or the strict rules of women hiding their bodies in public, or the ever-looming religious police that first propelled her to leave.

The real draw to America for her was clear: She yearned to sing, and her country looked down upon it. Women in Saudi Arabia have the right to sing professionally in Arabic, but they know it could dampen their chances of marriage. There is even less tolerance for an English-singing Saudi woman.

Rotana Tarabzouni on her couch in her Los Angeles apartment.
Rotana Tarabzouni on her couch in her Los Angeles apartment.

“I sing in English,” says Tarabzouni. “I feel, write and think in English.”

In January of 2013, she began studying at U.S.C. for her master’s degree in communications management, on an academic scholarship she received from a Saudi Arabian oil company she had worked for. Six months later, she sang in front of an audience for the first time. She had joined a ten-day singing boot camp called VocalizeU and was selected as one of the top fifteen, out of a group of about one hundred aspiring singers, to end the season with a live performance.

She sang in a floral crop-top and matching shorts, baring her tanned legs. Belting out an original song entitled, “You’re So Good,” Tarabzouni beamed with confidence. Although petite, her voice erupted out of her at perfect pitch.

Put out your cigarette
Throw a few drinks back
Have you seen me yet?
Well, I’m a nervous wreck

Tarabzouni's microphone.
Tarabzouni’s microphone.

Cuz you’re so bad
Yeah, you’re so bad
But you’re so good
Yeah, you’re so good to me

She swayed her hips to the beat and stared sensually. A VocalizeU staff member posted Tarabzouni’s performance onto YouTube. Negative comments flooded her inbox.

“YOU & YOUR VOICE ARE SO GOOD, BT [but] YOUR PANTS AINT! :/,” someone wrote.

“EWW,” a former classmate commented.

Tarabzouni tried not to worry about the YouTube commenters. What haunted her came weeks later. Before bed, she opened her email on her phone to read a new message.

“You are disgusting,” read the email, which contained a link to her video. “I’m going to stone you to death.”

* * *

A few months later, in early October, Tarabzouni heard that women in Saudi Arabia were organizing a protest against the government’s ban on female drivers. They would get behind the wheel and take to the streets in defiance. Thousands of miles away, Tarabzouni wanted to join her sisters in protest. She decided to lend her voice to the cause via the Web. Sitting in her apartment in Los Angeles, Tarabzouni devised a plan.

She decided to remake and film a popular song, the singer-songwriter Lorde’s summer hit “Team.” Collaborating with two of her classmates at U.S.C., Tarabzouni began outlining and organizing a music video for YouTube, which featured rewritten lyrics like calling “a hundred jewels on the roads” and “even the comatose will hear the rights we yell.”

Tarabzouni edited the New Zealander’s lyrics and melody to identify with the Saudi lifestyle, changing lines such as: Dancin’ around our lies we tell/Dancin’ around big eyes as well to Dancin’ around our rights we yell/Dancin’ around our rights we yell.

Five days of writing, filming, recording and editing led to the completion of the amateur music video. As the camera scans the Los Angeles skyline, the video flashes to Tarabzouni in tight black jeans and a loose jean shirt.

Tarabzouni sings:

We live in cities you’ll never see on screen
Not very pretty but we sure know how to drive free

Tarabzouni’s music video has now attracted more than 179,000 views on YouTube.

She addressed young Saudi women through her lyrics, showing that her protest meant more than just fighting for women’s right to drive—she was fighting for Saudi women’s rights to individuality.

Tarabzouni posted her cover of “Team” on October 21, 2013, a week before the scheduled October 26 protest. It went viral, receiving more than 100,000 views. Links to it ended up on Buzzfeed, Huffington Post, Upworthy and Mashable. NPR sampled a bite from her cover and Al Jazeera English featured her in an interview on their segment The Stream.

Messages and comments soon filled Tarabzouni’s email and Facebook inboxes. Saudi men and women she’d never met wrote in Arabic and broken English telling her to “Keep up the good work” and “Mashallah (Praise God)! What a voice!”

“This is the very gift religious police keeps burying in my country. bravo Rotana =),” a commenter wrote on YouTube.

Tarabzouni holds her good luck stone from London.
Tarabzouni holds her good luck stone from London.

But along with the support came the backlash. In the past, women who had protested against the driving ban were arrested, publicly humiliated and fired from their jobs. Although Tarabzouni had ten thousand miles between herself and the strict Saudi clerics, she knew her actions were punishable. 

Tarabzouni anticipated the disapproval from some Saudi Arabian people with each video she posted. But she didn’t let it deter her, because she felt strongly about standing up to the Saudi kings and strict religious clerics.

“I started to realize, me just singing on YouTube sent such a big message to the Saudi community, and it’s a message that they’ve been waiting to hear for a very long time.”

Tarabzouni paid no mind to those opposing her. The comments kept coming in but she kept singing.

“God will punish you,” someone wrote online.

“You’re going to burn in hell,” wrote another.

* * *

Even though King Abdullah, who took the throne on August 1, 2005, acts as one of the most liberal kings the country has ever seen, Saudi Arabia still divides along lines of gender rights. Abdullah supports women’s equality, and in his efforts to combat the gender imbalance, he made one of the most revolutionizing moves in the country’s history, appointing thirty women to the governing body the Shura Council, also known as the Consultative Assembly.

A globe in Tarabzouni's apartment, turned to show Saudi Arabia.
A globe in Tarabzouni’s apartment, turned to show Saudi Arabia.

The king also granted women the ability to compete in the Olympics for the first time, in 2012. Under Abdullah’s rule, Raha Moharrak became the first Saudi woman to climb Mount Everest, and Haifa Al-Mansour’s film Wadjda was the first ever directed by a Saudi woman, and also featured an all-Saudi female cast and was the first movie filmed in the country. Abdullah’s boldest step toward equality will come to fruition in 2015, when Saudi women will finally practice the right to vote and run for elected office.

Yet despite these changes, Abdullah and the Saudi religious clerics still forbid Saudi women the right to drive. No written law prohibits women from driving in Saudi Arabia—they simply aren’t issued licenses at all. The protest against the ban on driving in October was the largest in history around the topic.

Scores of men and women around the world voiced their support for the driving ban protest via social media. Some Saudi men even cheered and waved to the women brave enough to take the wheel in the major Saudi cities, Riyadh, Jeddah and Al-Ahsa.

Tarabzouni knows that her YouTube videos protesting the driving ban made it into the offices of her former workplace—the oil company, which granted her the scholarship to study in the United States. It damaged her reputation. Her American education and public speaking skills once had her on the fast track to management. The same job won’t be there if Tarabzouni returns home. Unless she finds other means of paying her tuition, she must repay the company, because she said the scholarship it offered was contingent on her working there upon her return, and otherwise will turn into a loan.

Tarabzouni sits and chats at her piano in her Los Angeles apartment.
Tarabzouni sits and chats at her piano in her Los Angeles apartment.

Tarabzouni aspires to record an EP for a label. She also knows fame might mean a revoked passport and rescinded citizenship, yet that doesn’t seem to sway her. She doesn’t want to go back home anymore.

“Who gives a shit if no one’s going to want to marry you?” Tarabzouni says of her country’s social mores. “Who gives a shit if people say that you’re an abomination to Islam?”

Recently, Tarabzouni returned to the states after a holiday spent in Saudi Arabia—a place that, to her, no longer feels familiar. She scoffed at having to abide by the national dress code and rolled her eyes as she sat in the back seat while her driver took the wheel.

Tarabzouni finds trouble suppressing her emotion when she remembers the trip. “I’m not sure if I’m getting choked up because I miss it or because I so don’t identify with it anymore,” she says.

* * *

Upon arriving back in L.A., Tarabzouni recorded a new song, “Ready or Not.” She plans to make this song a part of her debut EP. Tarabzouni sings again in protest but this time, the cause is her own.

We were told the throne belonged to us
But we were shown that we weren’t strong enough

I don’t wanna fade into your destiny
Not yet

Oh not yet
But ready or not
It’s already happening

Ready or not
Don’t have to pretend to be

Stuck in a prison
Drop your arms baby come stand next to me

Ready or not
We are already free.

* * *

Cleo Tobbi is a Los Angeles-based freelancer who has written for, OC Weekly and Voice of OC. Follow her on twitter @CleoTobbi.

Joshua Spencer is a Los Angeles based editorial photographer. He brings a photojournalistic approach to his editorial images by trying to catch the unconventional, unplanned moments.